This month I thought it would be interesting to step back and take a look at something the Ford Motor Company is credited with naming. No, it’s not the assembly line, but what Ford identified has become ubiquitous both in the consumer market and in the work most of us do on a daily basis. In fact, it’s so pervasive we might – if we look closely – find ourselves feeling like fish trying to explain water. It’s all around us. Automation.
Back in 1948, Ford Motors Vice President Delmar S. Harder coined the term “automation.”  When Harder first used the term, he was referring to the movement of automotive parts from one machine to the next in the manufacturing process. 
If we were to use the 1940’s as a starting point for automation, we might want to include some of the ground-breaking inventions that facilitated automation and gave it wings to grow. Shockley and his associates invented the transistor in 1947.  George Charles Devol, Jr. invented the first robotic arm, which he dubbed Unimate, as well as the photoelectrically activated “automatic door” and a precursor to today’s bar codes.  The 1950’s gave automation a new meaning when computer numerical control (CNC) and direct numerical control (DNC) found their way into manufacturing. The SAGE research project in 1954 led to the computer-aided design/computer-assisted manufacturing (CAD/CAM) revolution.  Integrated circuits came to market in 1958 , paving the way for the IBM 360 in 1964, which, in turn, led to the nascent microcomputer market of the 1970s.
Dr. Ken Goldberg, professor of computer science, industrial engineering and electrical engineering at Berkeley suggests that automation can be used to automate automation. He points out that “it takes six months for a factory to get geared up to produce goods in volume.” He foresees the day when we can use a CAD model for the product to be manufactured as the input for configuring an entire factory to make it – even including using the ERP system to place orders for raw materials. Of course, Dr. Goldberg made those remarks during a CBS radio interview in 2006.  That was about the time selective laser sintering 3-D printing  became available. SLS 3-D printing made mass customization and on-demand manufacturing of industrial parts feasible. Today, although it’s not the universal answer Dr. Goldberg suggested, using a CAD model as the input to your SLS machine has become routine. 
Fast Forward: 2014 and Beyond
Fast forward 66 years from Ford Motor Company’s coining the word “automation.” You’ll find what might be this year’s best review of how automation has evolved – and where it might be going. I’m referring to the YouTube video “Humans Need Not Apply.”  Its makers argue that automation will continue to evolve so quickly and robustly that the jobs many people do today will disappear. People have voiced this same concern since the Industrial Revolution began, yet if you look at how pervasive automation has become, today’s worries and concerns might seem to take on a darker tone.
For example, when we think of jobs only humans can do, such as writing this blog article, I see that even some of the creative aspects of work are being handled by artificial intelligence and self-learning bots. The Narrative Science company markets a bot known as Quill that takes input from humans and writes articles.  Ouch!
But in spite of the YouTube video and those who foresee a dark, jobless future, automation – and even automating automation – are here to stay. The good news: The human spirit has survived and prospered since people began walking the earth. Can something as intangible as bits and bytes and silicon spell the end? I don’t think so. How about you?
(1) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/automation (2) http://blog.modernmechanix.com/automation/ (3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU (4) http://goldberg.berkeley.edu/t-ase/Larry-Magid-Interview-2006-11-02-audio2147904.mp3 listen at 8:20 (5) http://www.pearcedesign.com/ahof/timeline_08.html (6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Devol (7) Image URL: http://www.roboticsbusinessreview.com/images/article/unimation–5_1.jpg (8) http://www.adi.pt/docs/innoregio_cad-en.pdf (9) http://individual.troweprice.com/staticFiles/Retail/Shared/PDFs/3D_Printing_Infographic_FINAL.pdf (10) http://www.eos.info/systems_solutions/software (11) http://www.narrativescience.com/about-us (12) FYI only: response to Humans Need Not Apply at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggN8wCWSIx4